Following my brief theoretical statement on the Romanian New Wave, I have assembled this collected basic guide to the Romanian New Wave. This is with the intent of encouraging people to see the films of this most note-worthy movement which has produced some films which I consider among the highest of filmmaking of the last decade, with forays as well into this decade.
The list is very likely far from complete, as this country’s output has only begun to find itself noticed by the rest of the world, and due to this, many of the good resources on the movement are only to be found in Romanian. Please feel free to comment if you find anything missing, or if you have any thoughts.
Cristian Mungiu is, perhaps, the most notable filmmaker in the movement of the Romanian New Wave for both his style and his work in incorporating and exposing other Romanian filmmakers
Tales From The Golden Age
Presented and written by Cristian Mungiu but directed by multiple people, Tales From The Golden Age is a whimsical series of short myths based on the mythos of Ceaușescu Romania. Different from the other films in tone, this is something of a love-letter to the strong Romanian love of the absurd humor bred within harsh communist society. It reminds me of Nikolai Gogol in the way it paints something of a landscape of the society through the ridiculous aspects which are brought out in something of considerate satire.
Stylistically, it is an anthology film á la Paris, Je T’aime, and the short film restrictions seem to apply more stress on the filmmakers’, as the scenes rarely breathe in the way most other films of this movement do, but it’s a great portrait of an era through sardonic humor.
Notable episodes include the one where the teenagers collect the bottles and that of the chicken runner, for their style, which is very in line with the aesthetics of the movement and its overall fidelity to realism, against the whimsical nature of the others. These final two episodes are the only ones in the series that I could consider as part of this “Romanian New Wave” as I have defined it.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is, in my opinion, a great feat of cinema. Beginning in the morning and ending at night, this film follows a young woman through her day as she helps her friend commit an illegal abortion at the end of Ceaușescu-era Romania.
We are introduced to the characters in a college dormitory, and are thrust in the depths of the mundanity of their lives, though given hints that something is amiss. The acting is some of the most realistic acting I have ever seen, and almost as soon as we are introduced to the characters, especially Otilia, the main character, we begin to feel comfortable with them, and the care that we feel for the characters adds to the emotional intensity of the picture. One scene in particular, that of the dinner at her boyfriend’s parents’ house, is perhaps the most honest and intense scene of mundanity that I have seen. So much happens in the scene which does not matter, yet it is full and rich; what is really happening is beneath the surface of the characters, which is briefly let out in quiet puffs throughout.
The scenes in general breathe spectacularly, and the camera behaves dynamically with the necessities of the scenes – sometimes the shots are long, sometimes they are cut short; sometimes the camera is fixed, other times it moves throughout the areas. The use of long, moving shots are, in particular, unique, as they create a sense of hyper-realism, contrasted with other notable users of the technique, like Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr. In the later two directors’ works, the continuity of time and movement created by the long takes add to a dream-like effect of surrealism, creating an engrossing environment of reality in surreality. In 4 Months, the engrossing sense of continuity of time and reality is there, but with an extreme sense of immediacy and realism replacing the dream-like quality. One is led to feel that this could not be a dream, and the discomfort and horror is felt even further.
Topically, the matter of abortion is tackled head on – the personal realities of it in general, but in particular the realities of it when it is illegal. And with this topic comes a whole set of topics, that of life and death, the consequences of harsh laws, the realities of life under a dictatorship – all of these topics are treaded on but without any philosophical dwelling. It’s a personal film full of life, pain, and reality.
Beyond The Hills
As the filmmaker grows and evolves in his craft, so too must his craft evolve.
Beyond the Hills, released the year of this writing, seems to be a step away from the previous characteristics of the New Wave, whilst maintaining many of the elements inherent in it. The location of the film is the first indicator of this – the film takes place almost entirely within a convent, and within the convent, the aesthetics of the film take on a more spiritual, poetic flavor. The scenes are carefully shaped, and the characters are carefully placed in the film in a way that begets Orthodox Christian iconography. It’s quite beautiful, haunting, and mysterious. But here the mundane is stretched out through several days, and almost all of the focus is on the main character’s friend and her struggles at the convent, rather than the simplicity of ordinary life.
The moments in which they leave the convent are where the New Wave heritage shines through. Coming most immediately to mind is the scene in which the main character talks to the police officer. His interaction is cold, disinterested, and with a lot of mundane side-comments with another officer present. In fact, when they leave the convent and go into the world, the entire aesthetic of the film changes to coincide with it. This is a great feature to have in any film, and shows a deep understanding of film language – letting the subjective viewing experience through the aesthetics alter depending on the subjective reality of the film.
Tuesday, After Christmas
Tuesday, After Christmas is an incredibly blunt film about relationships – specifically about a man who has two of them at once.
We are thrust into the intimacy of the film within the first second, immediately following the opening credits – our first sensation of the film is a combination of pale tan skin, yellow sheets, brown shelves, and white walls. We see the main character, Cristi, immediately following what could only have been a session of lovemaking with his lover, Raluca. Both of them are naked, and there is no predisposition to cover any of their vulnerability or nudity from our eyes – rather, we are almost thrust in bed with them, creating in us that sense of warmth and comfort that such a scene has very likely played in our own lives. It is an unforgettable beginning to a film, and immerses us completely into their emotional lives and world.
And thus the film begins. Their conversation is generally expositorially trivial, with only some hints that he is married and that she is not his wife. The film then progresses in which we meet his wife and see the mundane reality of their lives. Their conversation is almost always of the mundane reality of married family life around Christmas, but through it we see through the cracks of their stable reality. He is often curt and easily annoyed with her, for instance, a sign of his quietly pent guilt. The acting is spectacular and realistic, never betraying the reality of the film. The film is an emotional crescendo, bringing us through each aspect of the reality of betrayal – the causes, the reactions, the shock, the pain. Yet it is in a subdued outward display, and through confident, patient camerawork.
12:08 East of Bucharest
12:08 East of Bucharest is perhaps the funniest of the films on this list, albeit in an extremely dry manner. The film takes place on the 16th anniversary of the overthrow of Ceaușescu, and a talk show host wants to feature several citizens of his town to have them discuss whether or not the revolution was also part of their town. We follow the two guests in their days leading up to their inclusion on the talk show, one of which is an alcoholic teacher who is constantly in debt, the other is an ornery widower who is preparing to play Santa, as well as the talk show host, who struggles to get people to come on his show.
The film has very little exposition, and shows very raw images of the home lives of the characters, for comedic effect. Their wives are naggy (“Don’t eat bread without butter!”), they are dishonest with themselves and others. However, the penultimate scene in which the older gentlemen finally says his speech, graced with absolute simplicity and honest naive wisdom often in the lonesome elderly, is beautiful and touching in its mundanity.
The final shots in the film are a momentary grace of poetry which is very rarely featured in this movement.
Police, Adjective is essentially a film about a moral quandary. A police officer is assigned to follow around a young student as he smokes hashish with some friends. As his deadline for the case approaches, he attempts to fight arresting the youth, as he sees the law against hashish as archaic and soon to be forgotten.
Using long takes, we are thrust into his life in these few days. We are with him as he follows the youth around, as he goes to work, as he comes home, as he talks to his boss, and so on. Rather than jumping from one plot point to the next, we are left watching him as he waits, forced to feel his patience as our own. The dialogue has a bit more humor than most of the other films discussed, but all of it is with fidelity to the reality of the characters’ and their mentalities.
Aurora is a long, brooding tale centering on the last few days before a man commits his final act of desperation after a divorce. It is highly unique in form, as we are essentially thrust right in and given no explanation or exposition for almost anything until the very end. We pick up bits and pieces of information here and there, but some of the people involved left me utterly confused until the end.
Stylistically, each scene is essentially one take – cuts are used sparsely, and often with the effect of both a jump cut (be it one minute, one hour, or one day) and a scene change. The takes themselves are all from a fixed position (i.e. a tripod), and the camera gives a sense of uncertainty. In other words, as the actions are unfolding on screen, the camera seems just as helpless to the situation as we are, and as the Viorel, the main character, is to his decisions. It adds a delicious and greatly uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. And occasionally the camera seems helpless too to the storyteller (writer, director, and principle actor Cristi Puiu) decides in his omnipotent will to show us – leading us to occasionally be forced to watch a wall or a ceiling as the plot unfolds via sounds beyond it.
I think this is the least intimate of all the films of this movement that I have yet seen, as, even though we see the main character in all of his actions and his paranoia, he seems closed off even to us. But it’s certainly a unique study of a series of murders.
Other notable figures in the movement
Razvan Radulescu: Writer who helped with the writing of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days; Tuesday, After Christmas; Boogie (Summer Holiday); The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; and The Paper Will Be Blue. Also helped write the Bulgarian film Shelter.
Oleg Mutu: Cinematographer championing the moving camera; Beyond the Hills, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Tales from the Golden Age
Dragos Bucur: Actor in Tuesday, After Christmas; Summer Holiday; Police, Adjective.
Anamaria Marinca: Actor in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days; Summer Holiday
Vlad Ivanov: Actor in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days; Police, Adjective; Tales From the Golden Age
Other notable films associated with the movement
Boogie (Radu Muntean)
The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Muntean)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (Andrei Ujica) – the only documentary on this list, an “autobiography” of the fallen dictator made entirely of found footage shot during his dictatorship. I feel this arguably fits; perhaps it doesn’t, but I decided to include it anyway.